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Beltre deal is a steal for Red Sox

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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The Red Sox are stealing Adrian Beltre.

Doesn’t matter if Beltre’s contract ends up as one year, $10 million, two years, $14 million or even two years, $20 million.

Free-agent third baseman Chone Figgins signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the Mariners early in the off-season.

Beltre, widely considered the best third baseman on the market, is guaranteed a fraction of that -- $14 million.

His contract, sources say, will be for one year and $9 million, with a $5 million player option for 2011 or $1 million buyout. The option will increase to $10 million only if Beltre makes 640 plate appearances, according to one source. The deal will become official once Beltre passes his physical.

So much for the idea that Beltre’s superior defense would compensate for his .325 career on-base percentage in the open market.

So much for the initial asking price of Beltre’s agent, Scott Boras: Four years, $40 million, according to rival executives.

The Phillies, one source said, made “a very strong offer” to Beltre -- three years, $24 million, according to another source -- before signing free agent Placido Polanco to a three-year, $18 million contract.

Beltre, another source said, also had a more recent, three-year, $24 million offer, believed to be from the A’s. But Boras and Beltre chose the shorter deal from the Red Sox, preferring Beltre to go back on the market next winter at age 31.

The last contract Boras negotiated for Beltre was a whopper -- five years, $64 million with the Mariners. Beltre, because he already was set financially, could afford to take a greater risk. But Boras’ strategy will backfire if Beltre is unable to land a big contract next off-season.

Figgins’ agents, Seth and Sam Levinson, completed five free-agent deals before Jan. 1 -- Figgins, Polanco, right-hander Jason Marquis, reliever Fernando Rodney and outfielder Marlon Byrd. None of the deals was for below market value. Marquis, a second-tier starting pitcher, received a higher guarantee than Beltre on a two-year deal.

Beltre earned $12 million last season. Boras will take another hit if he fails to secure a decent contract for free-agent outfielder Johnny Damon. And he isn’t going to get the Mark Teixeira dollars that he wanted for Matt Holliday.

True, Beltre’s value was depressed by his injuries and low percentage stats last season.

True, he can re-enter the market in a much stronger position if he rebounds with the Red Sox.

Ideally, he will follow a similar path to right-hander Kyle Lohse, a Boras client who turned a one-year, $4.25 million, free-agent contract in 2008 into a four-year, $41 million extension the following year.

Beltre averaged 25 homers and a .793 OPS for the Mariners from 2006 to ’08 despite playing at Safeco Field, an extremely difficult park for right-handed hitters. As a complementary piece in a revamped Boston lineup, he should thrive at Fenway Park.

Still, the Red Sox could not have done much better.

Even low-revenue teams are comfortable with certain short-term, high-dollar contracts. High-revenue teams such as the Sox relish such agreements, the better for them to remain flexible long-term.

The addition of Beltre would leave the Red Sox no room to trade for Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez this summer, unless one of their corner infielders or designated hitter David Ortiz was injured.

But the Sox still could deal for Gonzalez if he were available at the end of the season or sign him as a free agent if he hits the market in the fall of ’11. They also could move onto other players in the first base/third base/DH category; Ortiz’s contract expires after this season, creating even more flexibility.

Oh, and there’s more.

The only risk for the Red Sox in awarding Beltre his player option is that he will suffer a major injury or play extremely poorly this season. Even then, the cost to the Sox “only” would be $5 million, a relatively small sum for a team that routinely pays players to go away.

If Beltre has a monster year and declines the option, the Sox can re-sign him to a bigger deal. If he walks, so be it.

More significantly, the player option provides an immediate benefit to the Sox, reducing Beltre’s salary for luxury-tax accounting purposes.

The collective-bargaining agreement states that player options are considered guaranteed years when calculating the tax, assuming the buyout is less than 50 percent of the salary.

The payroll for tax purposes is calculated by determining the average annual value of each player’s deal — in Beltre’s case, $7 million.

If Beltre takes the player option, the Red Sox will be charged that amount in each of the next two seasons, according to major-league sources.

If Beltre opts out, the Red Sox will be charged $7 million this season and $2 million in ’11 to account for his full $9 million salary — still a favorable arrangement.

Getting Beltre for $7 million in luxury-tax dollars was critical for the Red Sox. The team also is working on other deals to keep them near the $170 million tax threshold, sources say.

In the meantime,, the Sox still must resolve one other issue — their incumbent third baseman, Mike Lowell, is coming off thumb surgery and set to earn $12 million next season.

The Sox eventually will purge Lowell, probably in a deal similar to the one they had arranged with the Rangers, in which they agreed to pay three-quarters of Lowell’s salary.

Whatever move the Sox make, they will be better defensively at third base next season and perhaps as good offensively, though Lowell has produced an impressive .829 OPS in his four seasons in Boston.

Granted, the Sox could end up paying nearly $20 million or more in 2010 for Beltre and Lowell as well as $14 million for their past and present shortstops, Julio Lugo and Marco Scutaro.

High-revenue teams win some and lose some.

The Sox will win with the Beltre deal.

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